Artist in Yemen

I will be in Sana'a, Yemen, May 27-July 10 2006. I'll be working on my Arabic language skills and painting every day, walking around asking questions about food and gardens and perfume and incense. I'll be studying and living at the Center for Arabic Language and Eastern Studies(CALES)in the Old City of Sana'a. Although I usually paint in reverse on glass, in Sana'a I'll be working in watercolor and mixed media on paper.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Socotra: Heaven and Hell

I'm back early from Socotra. It was one of those Heaven/Hell experiences.

I was hoping to hook up with other tourists and share the cost of a car and driver and guide to get into the backcountry, but it turned out I was the only tourist on the plane. I couldn't afford to go it alone. That' just part of it though. I hadn't counted on the wind, a "dry monsoon", like nothing I've ever experienced. I got off the plane to a relentless strong hot wind. I knew it would be windy, but this was a kind of wind that blows you around in the street, and does not stop, ever. Plastic chairs went skittering down the main street. Then the locals told me, "Oh no, this isn't windy. The real wind hasn't started yet!". On the way in to Hadibo from the airport they pointed out concrete walls that the wind, the real wind, blew down last year. All night the wind screamed and howled and tore at the wall of my hotel. I was drenched in sweat. The next day, the real wind started. Hell.
I was lucky to meet a French woman, Anne, on the plane, who works in Hadibo and she introduced me to one of her local translators, whose father Hamoud offered to take Anne and me up into the mountains overnight because he was going up to visit some family on the Dixam Plateau.

So I did get out of town, if only for two days. It was amazing. The vegetation and landscape are truly otherworldly, and because I was with a local, I had a chance to see more of island Bedouin life than I would have if I had had the luck to be there in tourist season. The wind wasn't so bad in the mountains as it was in Hadibo, and it was chilly and damp.
The family we stayed with set up one of their little stone houses for the men guests and one for the women. I loved the women's guest quarters. It wasa doorless stone structure, with lots of pillows and blankets to cozy up in. We made nests on the floor, and the young women and girls got out the boombox and we had a party, first we danced for a long time. Then one of them got out the cosmetic case and we all got makeovers. One of the women applied our makeup, first a nice dark lipstick, then heavy pale oily pancake makeup, then kohl for our eyes, then plenty of perfume. Then she wanted to put the lipstick on my eyelids, but I begged off, knowing it would last for days. This was all before bed, with no wash water in sight. But it was so much fun! I slept that night knowing I was truly beautiful. For breakfast we had sour, slightly salty goat milk, strange but delicious, like drinking a nice natural cheese. Heaven.

We returned the next day to Hadibo, and I was able to change my ticket to return to the mainland to Monday instead of Friday. I stayed Sunday night with Hamoud's family. I tossed and turned and died a coward's thousand deaths, imagining what it would be like to fly out on Yemenia Airlines in that kind of wind, the kind of wind that grounds air traffic in the rest of the world. All night the wind roared, and whispered "wind shear" into my dreams.

It was a hard trip. I was reminded how much I hate to travel, how hard it is for me to be in wind. The good parts were transcendent, but I'm tired, and it was too much for me. The tough parts were all exhaustion and loneliness, and outweighed the best of it.
That said, please let me add that the people on Socotra were the nicest yet, and that's saying a lot in Yemen. They were welcoming and generous and warm and relaxed and had a wonderful sense of humor and equanimity.

There were, by the way, 8 or 10 American military guys on my plane who made an unintentional comedy of themselves by never giving the same answer twice about what they were doing there. They never let on that they were military, but their dog tags set off airport security, and they all had the same barber. Whadda buncha goofs. They said they were sightseeing, they said they were cave specialists, they said the American embassy had sent them to build a school. It was comic; I thought the first think they taught you at Spook School was to make up a consistent story and stick to it. I shudder to think what they were actually doing there. That's the unfunny part. Socotra is so strategically located, so close to Somalia, so close to Arabia.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Last Day of School

My last class was today. I will miss my teacher, Sina, very much. She is a patient teacher, a wonderful answerer of all my questions about Yemen, and a friend as well. I have been to her house and met her family, and I love her wonderfully funny spirited mom.
I won't miss class though. I've never been much of a student and I'm still not. I don't have the patience to learn the words for parts of speech and grammatical constructions. I've been learning a lot from my informal conversations with Sina, and from my wanderings around town talking and listening and asking my 1000 questions.

So the next chapter begins: a couple of weeks of travel. I'm off on Friday at dawn, flying to the island of Socotra. It's out in the Arabian Sea, very isolated. The plant life is strange Dr. Seuss stuff. They don't speak Arabic there, but Socotri. I'll be there for a week. I am now kicking myself for mailing my snorkel and prescription mask home from France. Foolish me.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

On Veiling

You can't be a foreign woman here without constantly having to think about, and rethink about, and think again, about veiling. In Sana'a, all the women are completely veiled, head to toe. Sometimes their eyes show, sometimes not. I think veiling is something that the west has fixated on and simplified and used as some kind of symbol for women's oppression in the Middle East. I think it's infinitely more complicated than that. I can't presume to write about what it means to the millions of women who veil, but I can write about what it means to me, and my own experiences with it. I hope whatever I write serves to break down stereotypes rather than reinforce them.

When I first came here, I wore the clothes I bought for the trip at Value Village and St Vincent de Paul: big loose lumpy longsleeved shirts over long shapeless print skirts, with a light scarf over my hair. I also often wore dark sunglasses, and a perfectly composed street face. These are clothes I would not be caught dead in at home, so I bought them to wear here and leave behind when I go back. I felt so frumpy and ugly in them, and keeping a poker face never let me fully relax. I found the look of women on the street so cool and graceful and minimalist, that I went out and bought an abaya (the coverall black gown) and a matching hijab (the black headscarf). They have coordinated black embroidery and black sparkles on the sleeves and the scarf ends. The sleeves of the abaya are long enough to cover my fingetips. I also bought, just as a curiosity, a burka, the full face veil that has an extra layer of black chiffon that can be worn down over the eyes or flipped over the back of the head. I found the burka kind of interesting as a fetish object, but didn't anticipate wearing it.

I started wearing the abaya and hijab out for short trips, and found it extremely convenient. I could roll out of bed and take my time drinking tea until the last possible minute, then throw on the abaya and hijab and dash down to class in my pajamas. I started wearing it more often than not.

My teacher told me about how much she loves to swim in the ocean, that she enjoyed the feeling of floating in the Red her full veil. I see little girls in the alley outside my house, roughhousing, playing soccer, chewing bubble their veils. I loved attending the wedding parties and seeing all those strong energetic women, drumming and dancing and smoking and hollering joyfully at each other. These are reminders that it's not what you wear that defines you, it's who you are and what you do.

I think back to when I lived in Burkina Faso, and I spent afternoons hanging out with my Muslim women friends, many of whom went topless in the afternoon heat. I'm sure they felt sorry for me; I could imagine them saying "Poor Janet. She must be roasting in that shirt, but she comes from a much more conservative culture where they make the women cover up".

So, what makes you comfortable? It just depends on what you're used to, and what the norm is around you.

So, it was only a matter of time before I went ahead and went full burka. Not all the time, just sometimes, the way I started with the abaya and hijab. I felt completely different, and people treated me differently as well. When I wear a burka, Yemenis are much more comfortable with me. Women speak to me on the street. Lots of people give me the thumbs up for it when they find out I'm a foreigner. I get better prices in the suq. It's a relief not to be constantly stared at. Instead, I can stare at everything and everybody to my heart's content without being conspicuous. I'm wearing it more and more, and it's my choice.

I think again and again about the architectural idea of refuge and prospect, how the places we love the most afford us refuge from the world, with an excellent view of it. Like a balcony at the opera, or a window overlooking a busy square. The burka offers me the same. I can see everything, and nobody can see me. It's a private place I take with me wherever I go.

I have been inspired with so many ideas for paintings that have veiled women in them, but felt like I had no business making such images if I did it as a nonparticipating observer--how could I presume to know anything about it? I would just be fueling the stereotype. I don't yet know if I'll be able to make these paintings, but I feel much closer to it now.
I'm comfortable, and I feel much more freedom.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Work

I've had a hard time settling down to work here. I think it's because the sensory input is so overwhelming. Every time I step over the threshold of my house there are a thousand sights and smells and sounds competing for my attention, a thousand mysteries I will never figure out. I enjoy all the detail, but it takes me a long time to process it all , and I rarely have the long quiet hours that I need to paint. I am flooded with ideas that I'm excited about, and I've done a few watercolors that I like OK, but the thing I'm most excited about is a map of the Old City that I've been working on since I arrived, filling it in with information as I explore. It's minutely detailed; the viewer would need a magnifying glass, I think.

As I work on this map I've been reading "My Name Is Red" a novel by Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. It's a story of love and murder and art and politics and philosophy, and takes place in Ottoman Istanbul in the 1600s, among miniature painters in the Sultan's court. The book has crept under my skin; perhaps that explains the crazy tininess and obsessive detail of the map I've been working on.
There's a quote in the book I keep going back to: "The beauty and mystery of this world only emerges through affection, attention, interest and compassion; if you want to live in your eyes wide and actually see this world by attending to its colors, details, and irony".
That sounds like truth to me; I'm doing my best to follow it. I'll have plenty of time to paint when I return to the long sweltering Tucson summer, but my time in Yemen feels so short and precious, and right now I believe my work is to pay it the best attention that I can.

So here's my favorite thing that I saw today: In the street, a man selling crowns and necklaces of cool fresh jasmine flowers (pikake leis, Lizzy!). He was surrounded by a crowd of garbage collectors in orange coveralls on their break, all buying jasmine garlands.
Oh my heart, oh grace!

Friday, June 16, 2006

Friday at the Hammam

This being the sabbath, and a long overdue day of rest, and since I've been trying to shake a flu, I decided the best thing to do would be to go at last to check out the hammam. Maybe I could sweat out the flu.
Hammams in Old Sana'a are always attached to a mosque. The ones in the Old City are old! I invited the two other women who live in my house (Christina and Marika, both German) to come with me because it's such a nice social experience. Marika had been to this hammam (Hammam Saba) before. I have been to hammams in Syria, and to the one at the Paris Mosque with my sister Lizzy, but still wasn't quite sure what to expect.
We stepped down below street level, to the foyer, and changed into modest clothes that kept us pretty covered up, but that could be drenched.
The hammam itself was beautiful, I loved it. It felt very ancient, with black volcanic stone pavers on the floor, black volcanic stone arches and quoins, black stone water basins and bathing seats, and white walls. Small translucent holes in the domes let in a little light so everything is illuminated and shadowed at once. It was not at all spacious or squeaky clean. Most foreigners won't go; they say it's dirty. It doesn't feel so to me. It is wet and soapy, and there is henna flowing off women's hair across the floor and in the gutters at the edges of the rooms. It is very body, but not dirty.
I think it's the ultimate feminine architecture: It's underground, it's dark; round rooms lead into round rooms that lead into other round rooms; it's wet and humid, you have to duck under small archways. And from the street, the domed roofs with look like breasts.
We scrubbed and sweated for a couple of hours, and when I got home I glugged a liter of orange juice and felt free from my flu.

Najat's Wedding, Day Three

The final day was much like the first two, only magnified in scale exponentially.
The part I liked best was sharing a taxi with 10 other women and two toddlers (not counting the driver), careening across town to the hall where the party was held, all of us in high spirits.
The hall was a big room with banks of floor-couches and cushions, with a big sort of a throne in a platform in the middle of one wall for the bride. Like the previous two days, we hung out, all wedged together, drinking tea, chewing qat and smoking waterpipe. Only this was the BIG party: I estimate between 500 and 600 women, all dressed in the most amazing sparkle-dresses. The band was there, bigger, with two drummers, a tambourine, and a lovely girl playing an oud (like a lute) and singing. There were pairs of women dancing all over the hall. Najat made a fairly brief appearance in a white dress, which explains why this was called the "European style" party. She looked very serious. A member of her family videoed her entrance and procession to her throne, and it was interesting to watch the women around her veil up as the camera moved through the hall, a wave of black that bloomed again into color as the camera got a safe distance away.
In all the three days of celebration I never once saw a man. I'm sure there's a groom in there somewhere, but it's a mystery to me.
I was pretty tired, and only stayed about three hours.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Najat's Wedding, Day Two

I went back to the wedding house yesterday for the naksh party. Naksh means "decoration", in this case body decoration. Not henna, which is used here to darken the palms of women's hands a solid dark brown (and dye the white beards of old men orange!), but khudab, a black skin dye that is used to make delicate leaf/vine/flower patterns on women's skin. The second day of the wedding is much like the first, only bigger, louder, more women, fancier dresses. This day Najat was beautifully dressed in a sparkledress with a hoop skirt, and instead of silver wore all gold jewelry, inicluding a beautiful two-piece gold mesh (like chain mail) face veil that showed just her eyes. Her arms were bare and showed off her fabulous body paint. Some of the women had their faces painted with khudab, delicate designs at the corners of their eyes and along their eyebrows (yoo hoo, Susan Eyde!). I'll do my best to bring lots of khudab home for all my girlfriends!
My favorite part, though, was the music and dancing. This time there was a live band: two women drummers and a woman singer with a little amp, and they rocked! It was so great, after seeing so many quiet veiled women in the streets, to see bare armed women ferociously pounding drums! They played traditional Yemeni wedding music and guests danced in pairs or groups of four. I was asked and asked and asked to dance--what does a good guest do? I danced. My teacher Sina warned me that Yemeni dancing, and Sana'ani dancing in particular, is difficult. I would agree. But everyone enjoyed the spectacle.
The party coincided with a terribly windy day, that brought with it such a dust storm that I couldn't see the mountains nearby for most of the day, so the windows of the house were kept closed. Every room was jammed tight, really tight with guests, and it was stifling hot. The hostesses passed out tissues so we could all mop our foreheads. And tea was served, this time with milk, a first for me in Yemen. Best of all, several boxes of assorted lipsticks were passed around for the guests to enjoy.
I have to be back at Najat's in an hour or so. I met a really nice woman, Fayzia, yesterday who offered to accompany me to the "european style" wedding tonight. It's at a big rented hall somewhere out in the larger city.
I'm trying to gather the energy to go. I have come down with some kind of flu: fever, chills, congestion, boneache, tired. But I don't want to miss this third and final installment of the Yemeni Wedding Show! It's really fun, and really exhausting.
I'm looking forward to tomorrow, Friday, when I have a full day with nothing planned.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Najat's Wedding, Day one

I've just come back from the first of three days of Najat's wedding celebration. The women celebrate separately for three days, the men for one.
Since her house is small and simple, it was held a a house nearby, a beautiful old tower house, freshly painted for the wedding. There were many rooms full of women, all unveiled and dressed in gorgeous sparkly colorful clothes, shouting and ululating and having a great time. It was the first time I've seen Yemeni women's faces and hair. Beautiful strong featurd women with lots of warmth and energy to match.
I was lucky to be invited to stay in the room while an older woman put layers of traditional Yemeni jewelry on Najat, gorgeous old tribal silver with red beads and coral: Bracelets and rings and necklaces and belts, and a forehead ornament that had add-on big dangly things at the sides that moved with the bride. This with a sheer black veil so you could see her face through it. She was gorgeous.
Wonderful smells at the party, including big bundles of rue (Ruta graveolens) with its exquisite bitter skunky smell. Little bunches of rue were sticking out of sleeves and cleavages and jewelry, and one of the women gave me two sprigs and advised me to keep them in my armpits (!) the better to smell the rue. There were also garlands of Arabian jasmine on the bride and many other women, and women were passing around baggies of loose jasmine that was thrown around like confetti. And of course all the guests were perfumed. I was in olfactory heaven!
I was served tea and qat.
Each room had a different social scene, and I would have loved to have slipped off to the room where the older women were smoking a water pipe, but the younger women kept me hostage (the closest I'll come to getting kidmapped in Yemen) in their room where there was great music and they were all dancing. Everyone here knows how to bellydance!
I had such a fun time. I miss my girlfriends at home, and it felt so good to be squeezed into a room full of celebrating women. Yemen is such a male place on the surface, and it was a relief to be let into the women's private world. I was made to feel very much at home. People here are so kind, and go out of their way to make me welcome and comfortable, wherever I go.
Tomorrow I go back to Najat's house in the afternoon for the henna party. There is a special black henna unique to Yemen, called khudab, that I am eager to try.
Thursday is the European style, white dress celebration.
I'll keep you posted.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don't go back to sleep. You must ask for what you really want. Don't go back to sleep. People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch. The door is round and open. Don't go back to sleep. -Jelaluddin Rumi